Authors: Karin Fossum
ALSO BY KARIN FOSSUM
Don't Look Back
He Who Fears the Wolf
When the Devil Holds the Candle
Calling Out For You
FROM THE NORWEGIAN
This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.
Published by Harvill Secker 2008
2 4 6 8 1 0 9 7 5 3 1
Copyright © Karin Fossum 2006
English translation copyright © Charlotte Barslund 2008
Karin Fossum has asserted her right under the Copyright,
Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work
This electronic book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
First published with the title
by J.W. Cappelens Forlag A.S., Oslo
First published in Great Britain in 2008 by
Random House, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road
London swlv 2SA
Addresses for companies within The Random House Group Limited can be found at:
The Random House Group Limited Reg. No. 954009
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
This edition was published with the financial assistance of NORLA
To Herdis Eggen, my editor
I see them in the porch light.
A long queue of people waiting on the drive outside my house; on closer inspection they turn out to be a mixture of the old and the young, men, women and children, They are patient, their heads are bowed, they are waiting for their stories to be told and it is I who will tell them, I am the author. I watch them for a long time, partly hidden behind my curtain, all the time thinking about the challenge ahead of me. But I am tired now; it is midnight, tomorrow maybe, I think, yawning. I need a few hours' sleep, it is hard work to give life to new characters every single day, it is not as if I am God, I am just a tired, middle-aged woman trying to keep going.
I watch the ones whose faces are in the shadows. There are so many of them, they are hard to count, and what happens to the ones whose stories I never get to tell, who will look after them? I press my nose against the window, my breath makes the glass steam up, I draw a little heart. At the front of the queue is a young woman cradling a small bundle, it is a baby swaddled in a blue towel. She clutches the baby to her chest, her face is racked with guilt. What can be haunting her so terribly? She is awfully young, emaciated, early twenties probably. She is wearing a dark coat with a hood and she wears high-heeled ankle boots. She stands as if rooted to the spot, with the baby in her arms and her head bowed towards her chest. Behind her stands a man. He looks somewhat puzzled, his hands are folded. An unassuming man in his early forties, thinning hair, he stoops slightly. He is not a religious man, though he might be praying to me; it seems as if he is beckoning me, that he has attached himself to the fringes of my consciousness. Behind him stands a very old man, scrawny and withered. There is no glint in his eyes, he has one foot in the grave and nobody notices him. But God knows he needs to be noticed, I think and scrutinise him. Inside his concave chest beats the noblest of hearts. Behind him is a woman, a little thin, greying hair, could she be me, will I tell my own story one day? I realise that it is midnight and I make an effort to tear myself away. I have to turn my back on them, I'm exhausted. I have drunk a bottle of burgundy and I have just taken a Zyprexa for anxiety, a Cipralex for depression and a Zopiclone to make me sleep, so I need my rest now. But it is so hard to turn my back on them, they continue to disturb me. At times they stare at my window in an intense and compelling way. How many of them are there? I lean against the window and try to count them. More than eleven, that means it will take me at least eleven years to get through them all. At the same time I know that as soon as I have dispatched the young woman with the baby and the man with his hands folded, new characters will arrive in a steady stream, I don't believe it will ever stop. This is how my life has turned out. I walk down the stairs every morning, then across the floor to the computer; I delve into the fate of a new character oblivious to everything around me. Time stands still, I feel neither hunger nor thirst, I am fixated by the blue glare from the computer. After several hours' work I finally resurface. The telephone rings and brings me back to life. It is busy outside, a real world with laughter and joy, with death, misery and grief. While I am absorbed by fiction, I pull the strings like a puppeteer; I make things happen, it's a passion and a lifelong obsession.
My cat appears on the veranda; I let him inside where it is warm. This agile grey animal is one of the most beautiful creatures in the world, I think; he walks across the parquet floor silently, softly and elegantly.
'Are you sleeping on my bed tonight?' I ask.
He fixes his green eyes on me and starts to purr. Then he heads for the stairs. Together we walk up the fifteen steps to the first floor and into my bedroom. It is small, cool and dark. There is my bed, my bedside table with the blue lamp. An alarm clock, an open book. I open up the window completely, the cool November air wafts in. By the bed is an old armchair, I place my clothes on the armrest. Then I slip under the duvet, curl up like a child. The cat jumps up, settles at my feet, a warm, furry ball of wool. For a moment everything is wonderfully quiet, then faint noises start to come through the window. Rustling from the cluster of trees outside. A car drives by; its headlights sweep ghostlike across my window. The house sits solidly on its foundation, resting like an ancient warrior. I close my eyes. Normally I am asleep the second my head hits the pillow and I remember nothing else. But now I am disturbed by a sound. Someone is trying to open the front door; I'm not hearing things. My eyes open wide and I struggle to breathe, fear surges through my body because this is really happening. The sound was very clear, it could not be misinterpreted. Did I forget to lock the door? Frantically I look at my alarm clock, the green digits glow, it is past midnight. The cat raises his head and I sense his movement through the duvet, this means the noise is not a figment of my imagination because cats are never wrong. What happens next is terrifying and eerie. The stairs creak; I hear slow, hesitant steps. I lie rigid in my bed. Then all goes quiet. I'm breathing too fast, my fists are clenched, I brace myself, I lie still, listening to the silence, praying to God that I'm hearing things. It could have been the trees outside, or a deer, perhaps, stepping on dry twigs. I calm myself down and close my eyes. Finally the sleeping pill kicks in; I drift off and only a tiny fragment of my consciousness is present. That is when I awake startled. Someone is in the room; I sense another human being. A pulse, a smell, breathing. The cat arches his back, he sniffs the darkness and in the dim, grey light from the window I see the outline of a man. He takes a few steps towards me and sits down on the chair next to my bed. I hear the creaking of the chair and the rustle of clothing. For several long minutes I lie very still under the duvet; the situation is bizarre, every single cell in my body is trembling. Neither of us speaks or moves, times passes, my eyes acclimatise to the dark. A man is in the chair by my bed. The light reflects in his moist eyes. For a moment I am paralysed. Then I force myself to break the silence, my voice is devoid of strength.
'What do you want?' I whisper.
It takes a while before he answers, but I hear how he shifts in the chair, I hear his breathing and the sound of his shoes scraping against the floor. Finally he clears his throat cautiously, but no words come out. I'm not someone who takes the initiative, I remain immobile, but my fear is so overpowering that my entire system is on the verge of collapse. Terror rips through my body, my heart contracts violently, then stops, then beats, three or four wild beats. Again a soft cough and finally he says in a deep and modest voice:
'I do apologise for intruding.'
Silence once more, for a long time. I fight my way out of my comatose state and half sit up in bed. I squint through the darkness, he is only a metre away.
'What do you want?' I repeat.
He struggles to find the words, squirms a little in the chair.
'Well, I would hate to be a nuisance. I have absolutely no wish to intrude, I'm not normally like this. But the thing is, I've been waiting for so long and I just can't bear it any longer.'
There is a note of desperation in his voice. I frown, confused. I consider the situation from an outsider's point of view: a middle-aged woman, a cat and a mysterious intruder.
'What are you waiting for?' I ask. My voice is back to normal, I might be about to die, but then I have always been aware of that.
Yet again he changes his position in the chair, he crosses one leg over the other having first hitched up the fabric to prevent creases. This manoeuvre seems calming, this is how an educated man behaves, I think, I am still panting, my body's need for oxygen is constantly increasing.
'I'm waiting for my story to be told.'
I fall back into my bed. For several long seconds I lie there feeling my heartbeat return to normal.
'Turn on the light,' I ask him softly.
He does not reply, does not stir, his body is still in the chair. So I raise myself up on my elbow and turn on the light. I stay in this position watching him in amazement. He sits with his hands folded. The light causes him to blink fearfully, his grey eyes avoid looking at me.
'You've jumped the queue,' I say.
He bows his head in shame. Nods his heavy head.
'I recognise you,' I say. 'You're second. There is a woman with a baby in front of you.'
'I know!' he groans, his face contorting with pain. 'There's always someone ahead of me, I'm used to that. But I can't bear it any longer, I'm exhausted. You have to tell my story now, you have to start this morning!'
I sit upright and smooth my duvet. I lean against the headboard. The cat jumps up and listens, his ears perked up, he does not know how to react either.
'You're asking me to make you a promise,' I say, 'I can't. The woman has been waiting too, she has been waiting for many years and she is deeply unhappy.'
He rocks restlessly in the chair. Moves his hands to dust off something from the knees of his trousers, then his fingers rush to the knot of his tie, which is immaculate.
'Everyone is unhappy,' he replies. 'Besides, you can't measure unhappiness, the pain is equally great in all of us. I have come forward to ask for something, to save my own soul. I'm using the last of my strength and it has cost me a great deal.' And then in a thin voice: 'Should that not be rewarded?'
I give him a look of resignation; I'm filled with conflicting emotions. I'm not a naturally commanding person, but I try to be firm.
'If you have been waiting that long,' I say, 'you can wait another year. The woman with the baby will be done in twelve months.'
He is silent for a long time. When he finally speaks, his deep voice is trembling.
'This assumes that you live that long,' he says eventually. His voice is very meek, he does not look me in the eyes.
'What do you mean?' I ask, shocked.
'I mean,' he says anxiously, 'you might die. Then I'll have no story, I'll have no life.'
The thought that I might die soon does not upset me, I live with it daily and every morning I'm amazed that I'm still alive. That my heart beats, that the sun still rises.
'But then that applies to all of you,' I reply in a tired voice. 'I can't save everyone. Have you seen the old man behind you in the queue? He is way past eighty. He is valuable to me. The very old know more than most people, I want to hear what he has to say.'
He gives a heavy, prolonged sigh. Glances at me, a sudden touch of defiance in his grey eyes.
'But I've summoned the courage,' he says, 'I've come all the way to your bedroom, I've taken action. I'm begging you! And I want you to know something; this is terribly difficult for me. It goes against my nature, because I'm a very humble man.'
I watch him more closely now. His eyes are downcast once again, his face tormented. His hair is thinning and a little too long, it sticks out inelegantly at the back, he is wearing a slate-grey shirt, a black narrow tie and a black jacket. Grey trousers, black well-polished shoes with even laces. He is very clean and neatly groomed, but old-fashioned-looking, a man from another age.
'A very humble man,' he repeats.
I exhale; my breath turns into a sigh.
'I'm completely awake now,' I say. 'I won't get any sleep tonight.'
Suddenly he cheers up. The pitch of his voice rises.
'Well,' he says excitedly, 'if you make the decision now that you will get up in the morning and start my story, then you will be able to sleep, I'm certain of that. You need structure and I can give you that.'
'And what about the woman with the child?' I ask. 'She's first in the queue, you know, and has been for a long time. It's extremely hard to pass people over, I can't handle that.'
At that he looks me straight in the eye. It comes at a price, his breathing quickens.
'I think it is too late for her anyway,' he says quietly.
I reach for the cat, draw him to me, hold him tight.
'What do you mean, too late?'
He nods his heavy head.
'I think the child is dead.'
I shake my head in disbelief.
'Why do you say that? Have you spoken with her?'
Once again he brushes his trousers, I imagine it is a kind of reflex, which he cannot suppress.
'You write crime novels, don't you?' he mumbles. 'So the child will have to die. Her story is about the child's fate, about what happened to it. Did she find her child dead? Did she kill it herself? Was the child killed by its father, was it ill? Things like that. She would get picked by someone else anyway. Whereas I'm not interesting like her, no one else would pick me. Do you see?'
His voice is timid and pleading.
'You're wrong,' I state.
'No, I'm not. Please don't tell me that I have to go outside again, please don't ask me to go back to that wretched queue!'
His voice falters.
'I know lots of people who would pick you if you came their way,' I say, 'greater writers than me.'
'But this is where I've come,' he says, hurt.
'Why?' He shrugs. 'You must have summoned me, I was driven here, it's already been three years. For three long years I've been waiting under the porch light.'
'I never summon anyone,' I say in a firm voice. 'I haven't invited you. Suddenly you appeared as number two in the queue. And yes, I've known you were there for a long time, I've seen you very clearly, but there needs to be some sort of system, otherwise I lose control.'
The cat has curled up once more in my lap and is purring unperturbed.
'What's the cat's name?' he asks suddenly.
'Gandalf,' I reply. 'Gandalf, after Tolkien's wizard.'
'And what about me?' he goes on. 'Give me a name too, please, if nothing else.'
'What if I have a cruel fate in mind for you?' I ask him. 'Painful, difficult? Filled with shame and despair?'
He juts out his chin. 'I thought we might have a little chat about that. And agree the bigger picture.'
I narrow my eyes and give him a dubious look.
'So you're going to interfere too?' I shake my head. 'That's not going to happen, I'm very sorry, but I'm in charge here. No fictitious character ever stands by my bed telling me what to do. That's not how it works.'